Today, for the first and only time in as long as I can remember, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher. by Jennifer Higgins

Today, for the first and only time in as long as I can remember, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher. The reason? One that I am embarrassed to admit. 

As an elementary educator, there are any number of challenges I face on a daily basis. We’ve ALL been there. Schedules that seem impossible, students who struggle, curriculum demands, parental communication, interruptions for students leaving early or coming late, social drama “spillover”, not enough time in the day, the list goes on and on…and on. We teachers wear many hats – at times, we are parents, coaches, friends, mentors, social workers, psychologists, and cheerleaders, just to name a few. Yes, our job is to teach our students reading comprehension, problem solving strategies, and research skills, but our job is also to remind them of their manners, to encourage them to talk and to listen to each other, to practice kindness so they may model it, to comfort them when they come into school upset because a parent or grandparent is in the hospital, to reassure them when they are nervous about taking a test, to give them a hug and a Band-Aid when they give themselves a paper cut…because if we don’t do it, who will? So, we do. And most of us – myself included – love every minute of it. And because we love it, we don’t just do it – we do it with enthusiasm, with compassion, and with pride. 

I don’t know how you would measure the value of a teacher in a student’s life, but if you could, I would rest assured knowing that anyone whose job it was to evaluate me would notice how I greet each child with a smile every day, how I incorporate Community Building activities into my classroom, and how I work for hours at night and on the weekends planning, giving feedback on assignments, and coming up with creative ways to teach 21st Century skills to my eager learners. In addition to teaching 4th grade in a collaborative, special education integrated classroom, I also actively participate in my school and district community as a Student Council co-advisor, volunteer on our Teacher Center policy board, summer school remediation teacher, and member of various committees including curriculum writing and the OLWEUS Bullying Prevention Coordinating Committee. I would be comfortable with having someone observe my classroom management, read through my plan book, take notes on my rapport with children, view my parent communication log, or otherwise evaluate any number of measures, which contribute to being a dedicated and effective professional.

Too bad that New York State has other plans in mind. Instead of fairly measuring the effectiveness of my planning and teaching by utilizing methods deemed appropriate by actual educators, my evaluation is based on a convoluted matrix, developed by some non-transparent “powers that be”. I have read about it, researched it, had many discussions centered around it, taken countless notes at meetings – and still, I can’t tell you how it is calculated. What I can tell you is this (and this is extremely difficult for me as someone who does not enjoy “tooting my own horn”):

I have been told by my colleagues that they love working with me. I have been told by my principal that I am an exemplary educator. I have been told by parents that I have made their children love school and that I was the best teacher they have ever had. I have been told by students that they wish I could follow them to the next grade. I have been thanked by administrators for my involvement and dedication. I have even recently been made aware that there is a Facebook group for moms in my school, in which I have repeatedly received accolades and compliments.

But… I have also now been told by New York State that I am 2 points short of being an “effective” teacher; that, in fact, after 12 years in the classroom, I am only “developing” at my profession.

So what now? Well, when I heard this news, I did what any person wanting to be rational but acting with their heart instead would do – I cried…and cried…and cried. I didn’t sleep. I had trouble focusing on anything else. And then, the more I thought about it, the more I got angry.

I am angry that I spent hours and hours of time last school year using test prep books that made students miserable. I am angry that some of the brightest students I know received grades on the state test that will no doubt make them question their own intelligence. I am angry that if someone doesn’t know me better, they could look at my score of 72/100 and think that I am not a very good educator. I am angry that there are other good teachers in the same position as me. I am angry because, if I am truly failing at what I am supposed to be accomplishing, there is absolutely no way to improve because I have no idea what I did “wrong”.  And I am angry because I would never give a score lacking feedback to a student, and yet that is exactly what is being done to me. 

Let me be clear: I believe in evaluating teachers, and I am the first one to admit that there is always room for improvement. I self-reflect, I study best practices, and I try - each day, each month, and each year - to be better at my job than I was before. What would a fair system for evaluating teachers look like? I’m not sure, but I know with absolute certainty that it would not look like this

I received a BA from Dartmouth College in Psychology, and I received my MA in Elementary Education from Columbia Teachers College. Sadly, I have been asked MANY times why I went to “such good schools to become a teacher”. The answer that I want to share, but often don’t, is: Shouldn’t a world-class education, from institutions that encourage you to persevere, to challenge yourself, and to think critically, be exactly what we want teachers to have in order to ensure that the next generation will be prepared to inherit the world and hopefully do a better job with it than we have? The answer that I usually give is to laugh and shrug nervously, because NO answer I can give can overcome the fact that the question is reflective of a much bigger problem. The truth is that most of our society still thinks of teaching as a “fallback” job, one that is not to be respected, and one that is undertaken by people who can’t do anything else. Clearly, this is the way we are thought of by the leaders of our state; otherwise, we would not be subjected to such an antiquated and unjust manner of “evaluation.”

Something needs to change, because if it does not, people like me – who have wanted to be teachers since they were little kids and who pour their heart and soul into their profession – will continue to feel at best dejected and at worst outraged. And eventually, those people will leave the field – either of their own volition or because they have been asked to do so because of their low performances on these evaluations.

Today, the reason that for the first and only time in as long as I can remember I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher, was that New York State told me that I am not good enough to be one.

The best – and the only – recourse I have is to take my frustration and sadness and turn it into a call to action. This cannot go on any longer. I can’t sit back and watch it happen. Change is necessary - and it’s necessary NOW.

Jennifer Higgins

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  • Brian H

    Jennifer I'll end this where I began it, with a question: what do you as a teacher want? You have the best hours, best job, best pension, good pay, safe conditions, stability, safety, and top notch health care. Oh yeah and you have to fill out a bunch of pointless paperwork so the governor can become president. Um...okay. Of course he's using education as his legacy. Nothing is bigger or more costly in nys. Developing... That's a "you" problem, fix it. The only way to exact the change you seemingly want is to get up and walk off the job. But'd look demented and delusional in this economy If you did that.
  • Jennifer Higgins

    I agree with a lot of what you said about the public’s perception of teachers and about teachers being easy scapegoats. I also hear you on being thankful for the excellent health care benefits we receive (and I wish continued good health to your wife). However, I will respectfully disagree with your point that statements like mine inspire no one. I wasn’t necessarily setting out to “inspire” anyone, but rather to educate. I do believe that there are many people out there, who believe everything that they hear – which is often anti-teacher. I also believe that there are many people who just don’t know enough about the situation to make a judgment. Why not, then, throw something out there that speaks in our favor and hope it resonates with someone? I know what you mean about reading pieces that come off “whiny”, but after reading mine back many times, I just don’t see it that way – on that point we might have to agree to disagree. I realize you think there must be something fundamentally wrong with me to have received a score of “developing”, but putting your preconceived notion of me aside, and assuming for argument’s sake that I actually am, in fact, a good teacher… if this “evaluation process” does NOT go away, and after 2 years I have still received low state scores, which have been proven to be invalid and unreliable, I WILL be in danger of losing my job. Perhaps you think that is fair, that in the grand scheme of things I deserve it. The point I am trying to make is that I – and others in a situation similar to mine – don’t.  I DO think teaching is an important job, because we have the potential to affect lives in immeasurable ways, but I fully understand your point – I’m not performing life saving surgeries, curing diseases, or fighting on the front lines to protect our country. But, I don’t think it’s fair for anyone, in any job, to be terminated without fair grounds, and teachers are no exception. Unfair and inappropriate tests forced upon 9 year olds do not, in my opinion, constitute fair grounds. The fact that you make a flippant comment that “being developing is a ‘you problem” highlights, to me, your lack of knowledge about what is happening at the elementary and middle school level across New York State. I hope, for you and the other teachers with whom you work, that you continue to remain unaffected by these sweeping changes. Education reform is absolutely cyclical, as you said, but I know that in 13 years, I have never before seen such policies that threaten the entire system. I feel that I would be remiss not to speak out against them.

    We appear to be at an impasse, so I suppose there is nothing further to add to this conversation.

  • Robert. B. Vellani, PhD

    Again, I'll underscore my original comment: I cannot think of any other profession currently under so much scrutiny as education. Simply return to the ATW-S - poverty, socioeconomic conditions, weigh most heavily on student outcomes. No one holds bankers and hedge fund managers accountable for the state of the economy; no one holds the media (on all points of the compass) responsible for portraying a society where a life of the mind, a critical and informed citizenry on the issues of the day is of value; yet, teachers are wholly responsible for our society's shortcomings; it simply comes down to teachers and school districts often times without the resources to fulfil their function. Remember: don't have the players, hate the game, if you understand my drift.